Chris Roberts

Was the iPhone the best thing to happen to Windows Mobile?

• Posted in Technology

Microsoft have, to be blunt, squandered their position as market leaders in the smart phone market. Having worked their way to the top of the charts (for at least business users), 2009 saw their popularity drop to just third place.

To my mind, this was largely due to neglect. To all but the trained eye, many parts of the operating system remained largely unchanged between 2001 and 2009. The main 'Today' screen being a good example of this.

It's not too surprising, then, that when an innovative product like Apple's iPhone came along - they started to lose customers.

The iPhone did introduce a fantastic new user experience, but it also did the basics very well. Microsoft's smart phones suffer from poor performance - making simple tasks such as answering calls and writing text messages a chore. The iPhone, by comparison, is extremely responsive.

In part it can achieve these performance gains as it doesn't have the multi-tasking capabilities that Windows Mobile has. I suspect that there are far more Windows Mobile users who would prefer to do without multi-tasking than there are iPhone users who really miss it!

The point is that Apple put the user at the centre of their world. Nothing is more important to them than the user experience. This is one of the reasons the iPhone has become a massive success and why Apple have truly devoted fans, whereas Microsoft have a bunch of users.

But perhaps everything is about to change?

Windows Phone 7 Series

Microsoft announced their next generation of mobile operating system at the World Mobile Congress event in Barcelona. Today, at the Mix 2010 event in Las Vegas, more details were revealed to an assembly of eager developers. ('Assembly' being the most appropriate collective noun for a group of Microsoft developers!)

Apart from the name (which continues Microsoft's tradition of horrendous titles) it would appear that the success of the iPhone has been the catalyst for a huge change in strategy at Microsoft. The result is a product which both looks fantastic and is generating the kind of buzz Microsoft haven't seen around one of their products for a long time - if ever.

So what have they done differently this time?

  1. Tighter Hardware Specification. For the first time, Microsoft have laid down strict rules about the hardware platform vendors will have to provide if they want to put their operating system on it. This means that Microsoft can make more assumptions about the capabilities of the hardware and don't have to be so 'generic' with their platform.

    This will be a major benefit when it comes to performance of the user interface. It's also a complete change in strategy compared with Microsoft's normal position of building more general purpose operating systems which will work on a wide variety of hardware.

  2. No Backward Compatibility. Microsoft has announced that existing applications will not run on Windows Phone 7 Series. This is likely to upset a number of developers and is another example of a complete strategy change.

    Windows 7, for example, has backward compatibility support right back as far as Windows 95!

  3. A Different Kind of Development Platform. Most existing Windows Mobile applications are, to be blunt, ugly. They look bad and are generally a nightmare to use. Having attempted to build a 'nice' touch based user interface for Windows Mobile, I can understand why - it isn't easy!

    The user interface in Windows Phone 7 is based on Silverlight. Applications are built using Expression Blend - a toolset aimed more at designers than traditional developers. This is likely to encourage the sort of user experience driven development that the platform deserves.

  4. Windows Marketplace for Mobile. Microsoft has already launched their equivalent of Apple's App Store - Windows Marketplace for Mobile (another catchy title!). This is likely to be expanded upon significantly for the release of Windows Phone 7 and will offer a consistent experience for users who want to purchase and download applications.

    Previously, application developers were left to sell their products on their own sites, or through a number of third party websites. This resulted in software being harder for users to find. It also meant that installing software often required the user to connect their device to a host PC.

All of these are designed to ensure Microsoft retain a greater degree of control over their platform. They are no longer shipping a tool for hardware providers to use to make their piece of kit work. They are creating an entire ecosystem in which the hardware plays a supporting role.

They have finally realised that if they want reclaim their position in the mobile market they have to take control of every aspect of the product and make sure it works for the user.